Reflections on an Undergraduate Public History Course

Ryan Gosling Sitting at a bar. Words written "Hey Girl, Combining my image with theory is an outstanding exercise in Public History praxis"

This fall I had the opportunity to teach “Select Topics in Community-Based Public History”, a third-year history course at Algoma University.  This was my first time designing and being the sole instructor for a course.  Now that the dust has settled and all my marks are in I thought I would use this post to reflect on how the course went.

As some background, I approached this course with the desire to provide students with a grounding in collaborative practice and community engagement, while introducing them to the range of possibilities within the public history field. This was only the second time this course has been offered at AlgomaU. I also had a really small class of under ten students.  The class was a mixture of history majors and folks who were taking this as an elective.  The class met twice a week for 1.5 hours each session in a standard classroom space on campus.  Some of the activities and approaches I took would likely have to be adjusted for a larger class size.

Planning the Course

When I found out that I was the selected as the instructor for this course I had a whole lot of squee and excitement (I may have actually jumped up and down). Once that initial excitement dulled I immediately dove into research mode. I looked at the syllabus from the 2015 iteration of this course and scoured the internet for undergraduate level public history syllabi. I also reached out to a couple of folks who I knew were teaching public history at the undergraduate level in Canada.  My goal was to see how other folks had structured their classes, while looking for Canadian specific public history content to create a syllabus around. I also wanted to use open access readings and avoid assigning a textbook.

I also started scoping out what topics I needed to know more about in order to effectively teach them in the classroom.  I had strong ideas about what I wanted to include in relation to archives, digital history, museums and oral history.  But, I was much less certain in how I would present material relating to Parks Canada, commemoration, and built heritage. One of the best parts of preparing for this class was that I got to embark on a public history reading binge.

For me public history is all about collaboration and community outreach. In each week I underpinned our discussion in relationship to public outreach, accessibility, and community facilitation. This meant that though we might be talking about archives one week and built heritage the next week there were underlying themes which were woven into the entire the course. For most classes I lectured for approximately 45 minutes and the remainder of the class was spent on either discussion or hands-on learning activities.  One of my goals of this class was to provide skill building opportunities for the students. This meant thinking creatively about how to engage students in activities where they could practice what they were learning.

Building Assignments

I included a couple of assignments that allowed students the opportunity to explore formats that weren’t a traditional essay.  The inclusion of these assignments went back to the idea that I wanted students to come away from the class with some hands-on skills and to have had the opportunity to think about public history critically. The short written assignment for this class focused on interpreting a local heritage plaque.  Students were required to pick a plaque from an approved list of Ontario Heritage Trust and Canadian Heritage Site plaques.  They were then required to analyze the plaque and come up with alternate wording for the plaque text.  The catch – they had to keep the plaque within 5 words of its current number.  This was a 2-4 double spaced assignment and I was impressed with the work the students put into developing new plaque language and researching the historical significance of their chosen marker.

The final assignment for the class allowed students the option of completing either a traditional research paper or creating a digital history exhibit.  The students were evenly split – with half of them deciding to do a paper and half opting to create an exhibit. I warned students that though the exhibit might seem like the easier of the options, the exhibit assignment actually required the use of a number of skillets including historical research, concise writing, digital history tools, and exhibit curation. The exhibit assignment required them to develop a historical narrative/argument, pick 10-15 images to illustrate their exhibit, and develop fulsome captions based on their research to accompany the images.  I was impressed by the creativity, research, and narrative building of the students who picked the exhibit option.  Many of the students picked Tumblr as their exhibit platform.  This worked okay but there are definitely other platforms that would have worked better for this project. If I was using this assignment again I might spend more time in class exposing students to open source CMS and exhibit software such as OMEKA. I might also consider moving the classes on digital history into a computer lab space so there could be more hands-on learning activities while walking through examples.

Collaboration in Practice

Most classes involved group work either in the form of small group discussions or working in pairs to complete a hands-on task.  Since collaboration is such an important part of public history work I wanted to make sure my students had multiple opportunities to build teamwork skills and work in groups, something that isn’t always emphasized in humanities education.  In addition to in-class activities students worked in small groups for a presentation assignment and our participation in the Canada-wide Wikipedia edit-a-thon helped foster a communal spirit.

I also took a collaborative approach to teaching the class.  I reached out to a number of local heritage professionals and invited them to collaborate on the course.  In some instances that involved us visiting their heritage space and working on a reflective activity there. See my Active History post for details on how we used Anarchist Museum tags to encourage students to critically think about heritage spaces. In other cases, professionals came into my class to speak with students or spoke to students by Skype. I had a couple of goals with this approach: I wanted students to meet local public history practitioners and expose them to some of the great work that is happening locally, I wanted to showcase the range of possibilities within the public history field, and I wanted to continue to build partnerships between AlgomaU and community organizations.

One of the best examples of how this collaboration worked out to enhance the course was when Miranda Bouchard of Thinking Rock Community Arts visited our class.  Prior to Miranda’s visit we had spent a couple of classes talking about community engagement and oral history.  During Miranda’s visit she talked about her role in the Rivers Speak Community Play, an initiative that based around gathering community memories of water and crafting them into a community created play.  Miranda’s work was an excellent example of public history skills used in practice and her work illustrated the potential of community engaged oral history practice.  We also used this opportunity to talk about some of the real struggles of community work – learning how to facilitate community dialogue, grant writing, ethics, and all the admin work.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

As with any course there were some weeks that went better than others.  There are definitely readings I would switch and a couple of lectures that missed the mark that I would approach from different angles. I talk to groups a lot as part of my day job, but getting up in front of a class on a regular basis has a different feel.  It took me a while to work my way through my feelings around the performative nature of teaching and I learned a lot about myself during this class.

If teaching this course again I would also build in a more structured participation model for the seminar portion of the course, as in many cases students desired a more concrete guidelines around how they were expected to participate in the classroom discussions. I might also consider running a workshop on how to cite sources for a public history assignment.  Many of the students in my class hasn’t cited archival photographs before. Providing in-class support or a written guide on how to do this would have been helpful when it came time to do their final assignment.

Photo Credit: Image from the Public History Ryan Gosling Project created by Rachel Boyle and Anne E. Culle.  Go check out their project. So many fantastic memes.

2017 In Review

2017 written using sparklers.

It’s December! That means it is annual year end reflection time. As in previous years I’m going to use this post remind myself of all the things I did in 2017.  A year is a long time and accomplishments tend to be immediately celebrated and then forgotten in the hustle of the day-to-day chaos.  I also use this post as a way to remind myself to update my CV and my professional website will all the things.

Writing Things

Talks and Presentations

  • I was asked to present a webinar leading up to the Ontario Museum Association Indigenous Collections Symposium.  As part of this webinar I had the opportunity to work with Amos Key Jr., of the Woodland Cultural Centre, to develop the “An Introduction to Residential Schools in Ontario: Histories and Interpretation” presentation.
  • In April of 2017 Danielle Robichaud presented Collaborative Archival Practice: Rethinking outreach, access, and reconciliation using Wikipedia at the Archives Association of Ontario Conference. I am still super happy that Danielle asked me to co-present with her and that I had the opportunity to meet her in person at the AAO.
  • Jessica Knapp and I co-hosted the Canada’s History Society’s Wikipedia as Outreach and Activism in Canadian History webinar series. I also presented two webinars on the basics of Wikipedia as part of this series.
  • I’ve also continued to do a lot of outreach and presentation work as part of my job – I’ve spoken with over 2,000 students and professional groups about residential schools and the history of the Shingwauk site.  As part of this work I’ve had the chance to work closely with some great folks including Skylee-Storm Hogan and Mike Cachagee.  They are constant sources of inspiration and I’m lucky to work with them.
  •  In 2017 I was also interviewed a few times, including:

Collaborations

  • Andrea Eidinger and I made the Beyond 150 Twitter Conference a reality. It was so much fun! And we are considering running another one in 2018. (Theme ideas anyone?)
  • Jessica Knapp and I ran with a crazy idea about a Canada-wide Wikipedia edit-a-thon.  We built resources to support new editors and had a great day of historians, GLAM professionals, and students contributing to Wikipedia.  We’re looking at ways to improve this model and possibly run it again.
  • I taught an undergraduate public history course in the fall of 2017.  One of the best parts of teaching this class was having the opportunity to collaborate with other public historians working in the field and introduce my students to the range of possibilities within public history.  A huge thank you to: Stacey Devlin of Know History; Jessica Knapp and Joel Ralph of Canada’s History Society, Miranda Bouchard of Thinking Rock Community Arts, Will Hollingshead of the Ermmatinger Clergue National Historic Site, and others for their willingness to engage with my students.  Your insight helped make the course a success.

Odds and Ends

  • I moved in 2017.  I now have a much more reasonable commute.  I biked to work! I’ve never had that option before.
  • I started a podcast! This is still relatively new and is something I’m still hella enthusiastic about.  Want to collaborate on an episode? Please get in touch!
  • I attended CHA this year for the first time in ages. I had a great experience and had the chance to meet some folks I had been collaborating with in person.
  • I continue to be involved in NCPH (and I’m on this year’s slate of nominees for NCPH’s Board of Directors).  This is an organization I love and working on NCPH projects brings me a lot of joy.
  • My three year old child is a whole lot of energy and awesome.

And lots of other things. For me 2017 has been filled with collaboration, exciting new projects, and great colleagues.  I hope for more of the same in 2018.

Photo credit: Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash

Announcing the Historical Reminiscents Podcast

White circle on blue background with text reading "Historical Reminiscents Podcast"

If you know me chances are you also know I have serious feels about podcasts.  I like them.  A lot.  For over a year I’ve been tossing around the idea of starting my own podcast.  I went back and forth numerous times on what to create a podcast about –  public history, fandom, or craft beer in the North.  After much stalling, mostly out of fear, I’ve committed to creating the Historical Reminiscents Podcast.

Part of my podcast creation fear was around the idea that I needed other people to create a podcast.  A lot of podcasts are based on conversation and include more than one person.  I didn’t know who I could approach to create a podcast with me. What if there was just me? Would it sill work? And would people be interested in listening to me talk? Eventually I shoved all those fears and nagging questions aside and decided to dive in.

Inspired by some of my favoruite short solo podcasts such as Katie Linder’s You’ve Got This and Chip Sudderth’s Two-Minute Time Lord  I’ve decided to enter the solo podcast world and create something dedicated to public history practice, archival impulses, and historical insights.  Both Linder’s and Sudderth’s podcasts were designed to feature just one person, on a weekly basis, for a relatively short period of time – 10 or 2 minutes respectively.  After listening to a ton of solo podcasts I kept coming back these two podcasts as a format that I could work with and fit into my life.

The Historical Reminiscents podcast, named after the original history blog I started in 2008, is currently in production with plans to release the first episode later this month. Despite deciding to go the solo route I would definitely welcome guests on this podcast.  Interested in chatting about the shape of public history or archives in Canada? Connect with me on twitter (@kristamccracken) or send me an email at krista.mccracken[at]gmail.com

Reflecting on Camping and the Parks System

Group of women carrying a canoe overhead
Unidentified group of women carrying a canoe, Winnipeg, 1940s. Library and Archives Canada. MIKAN 4328425

I’ve went camping twice this summer and stayed at three Provincial Parks in Ontario as part of that experience.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the complicated nature behind the parks system, the dispossession of Indigenous people from parks and the lack of acknowledgement of the traditional usage of the land by Parks.  None of the parks I visited this year had signage about the history of the park or about the park’s relationship to the local Indigenous communities.

Last year I visited Pukaskwa Nation Park.  It is the only Park I’ve visited to date that is actively working with the local First Nation community to reinterpret the site and to include a discussion of the community’s history on the land. Pukaskwa’s staff included an Indigenous Cultural Interpreter – who was from Pic River First Nation, the local First Nation community that was impacted by the creation of Pukaskwa.  The were also in the process of creating an Anishinaabe Camp for cultural programming and the “Bimose Kinoomagewanan” trail signage was created by local elders and youth from Pic River.

Pukaskwa serves as one example of parks addressing their problematic past.  I would be interested in knowing of any other examples out there.  As visitors what can settlers do to encourage more critical interpretation? As a first step speaking with the folks staffing the visitors centre and interpreters to ask them about what they know about the park’s history can help.  If they don’t mention the traditional Indigenous territory of the land ask why. Ask them why there is no discussion of the land prior to the park being established and if there is any plans to change that.  Talk with the people you are camping with – have those important conversations about land and history – even if it makes you or them uncomfortable.

For additional context I would suggest reading Anne Janhunen’s The Holiday Spirit Will Prevail’: Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Erasure in Ontario’s ‘Cottage Country‘ presentation and Robert Jago’s “Canada’s National Parks are Colonial Crime Scenes.”

Teaching: Select Topics in Community-Based Public History

This fall I’ll be teaching HIST 3296: Select Topics in Community-Based Public History at AlgomaU. I’m thrilled to have this opportunity and excited to be able to share my love of public history with students.

From the course calendar: The course will introduce students to the theory and practice of community-based public history, with reference to local and regional examples. Students will explore the history and relevance of community-based efforts to make the past visible and comprehensible to the public. The social functions of museums, libraries, archives, and monuments, as well as web-based sites of historical commemoration, will be critically assessed. Contrasts between history, heritage, social memory, and tools such as oral history will be examined.

I’m still working on the planning of the course but in the meantime I’m using this as a reason to enjoy some public history focused books that I have been on my to-read list for ages.  So far my reading has looked at Parks Canada, commemoration in Canada, participatory heritage, museum writing, and exhibit design.  If nothing else this reading has filled my head with a lot of great ideas and also reminded me about the diversity of public history.  So much of my work is archives focused theses days. I do engage in a lot of educational programming, community outreach, and the occasional exhibit design – however it is all through an archival lens.  It’s been nice to take a step back from that really focused form of public history and to look at broader social trends, work that is going on in my local community, and interesting projects occurring across Canada. Onwards!

Meyer May House

Side view of the Meyer May House
Side view of the Meyer May House. Image by Jaydec, CC BY-SA 3.0.

During a recent trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan I had the opportunity to visit the Meyer May House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  The house was commissioned in 1908 by Meyer S. May and was built between 1908-1909 by Wright.  It is considered an example of Wright’s Prairie School era work.  In 1985 Steelcase, a Michigan based furniture company, purchased the Meyer May house and worked to restore the house to how it looked when the May family moved in 1910.  The house is operated as a historic site by Steelcase and is open to the public for free tours.

My visit to the house was fantastic – it included watching a video about the restoration process and an hour long guided tour of the house itself.  The video of the restoration process can be found in clip format on the Meyer May website.  The video highlighted the archival research that went into finding documentation on the original exterior design, furniture, and interior decorations of the house.  It discussed how photographs were used to supplement blueprint and textual records about the house.  The video also showcased the work of conservators, artisans and experts that went into reconstructing things like paint colours, murals, carpets, and light fixtures that were designed by Wright.

The docent who led my group was extremely well informed about the architectural styles, Wright’s influences, and the house itself. The tour docents are all volunteers and I was blown away by their professionalism and expertise on the house.  It was interested to learn about how the family lived in the home, the impact the family’s personalities had on Wright’s design, and the restoration work that has gone into preserving this history.  I was also a bit surprised by how busy the site was. There was around 15 people in our tour group and there was at minimum three or four other tour groups running at the same time.

I would highly recommend this tour to anyone interested in built heritage or the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.  We scheduled an extra day in Grand Rapids just so we could take the tour and it was well worth the effort.

Wikithon Roundtable Recording

As I mentioned earlier, I am very happy to be co-hosting the “Weikipedia As Outreach And Activism For Canadian History” with Jessica Knapp of Canada’s History Society. Last week we ran our first webinar which featured Jade Pichette, Skylee-Storm Hogan, and Ezra Winton discussing their experiences editing Wikipedia, hosting edit-a-thons, and sharing advice for those wanting to host or participate in future edit-a-thons. A recording of the webinar is available below.

Our next webinar is Wednesday July 19, 2017 at 2pm ET and will feature Amy Marshall Furness, the Rosamond Ivey Special Collections Archivist and Head, Library & Archives at the E.P. Taylor Research Library & Archives, Art Gallery of Ontario.  Amy will be discussing her involvement with the Art+Feminism editing community and how to use Wikipedia for outreach and activism in a GLAM setting.  Interested in joining us? You can register at: http://www.canadashistory.ca/Explore/Webinars/Wikipedia-as-Outreach-and-Activism-for-Canadian-History-Webinar-Series

 

Frederik Meijer Sculpture Park and Gardens

Leslie E. Tassell English Perennial and Bulb Garden
Leslie E. Tassell English Perennial and Bulb Garden

Recently while I was visiting Grand Rapids, Michigan and had an opportunity to spend time exploring the Frederik Meijer Sculpture Park and Gardens.  It was a wonderful few hours on a gorgeous summer day and I loved the mixture of art, nature, and cultivated gardens.  The Gardens opened in 1995, sits on 158 acres and aims to promote an understanding of gardens, sculpture, nature, and the arts.

Given that the site is 158 acres and that we had a limited time frame we were selective about which areas of the Gardens we explored.  We spent the bulk of our time exploring the Sculpture Park which is 30 acres of outdoor paths, formal gardens, and natural landscape all geared to showcase large outdoor sculptures.  There was a mixture of modern and traditional sculpture with some of my favourites being huge metal sculptures that were large enough to walk under. I also liked that they intentionally left some areas of the sculpture park ‘wild’ or more natural, it provided a great contrast to the sculptures.

One of my favourite sculptures from the Sculpture Park

In addition to the sculpture park during our visit there was also an indoor exhibition, Ai Weiwei at Meiher Gardens: Natural State.  As part of this show Ai Weiwei’s work was in a formal gallery space but also located in conservatories and public spaces. Ai Weiwei is known as an activist and artist and much of his work on display was politically motivated or providing critical commentary on social events.

We also spent some time viewing around the indoor conservatories, the British style outdoor garden area, and the kids garden.  We concluded our visiting the daylily show and competition that just happened to be occurring the day we visited.  Lilies are one of my favourite flowers and I adored seeing the range of colours and styles of flowers featured in the show.

Overall this was a really great way to spend a morning, I left feeling like I learned something and also feeling really relaxed after spending so much time outside among beautiful garden spaces.  I would definitely recommend this site to anyone traveling through Grand Rapids.

Reading: Make Roanoke Queer Again

Person holding book.
Used under CC0 license.

The latest issue of The Public Historian featured a number of great articles including “Make Roanoke Queer Again: Community History and Urban Change in a Southern City” by Gregory Rosethal. This article explores the specifics of interpreting queer history in Roanoke, Virgina but also focuses more broadly on queer community history projects, resistance through grassroots history, and interpreting urban history through a queer lens.

Rosethal argues that “queer public history projects can utilize cities as living laboratories for the exploration of the queer past” (p. 43). When discussing the history of urban environments and marginalized communities looking at places of past activism, past conflict, past meeting/social connection venues can be hugely powerful.  Similarly community experiences of erasure of flourishing can frequently be tied to physical spaces.  Rosethal uses the examples of the Make Roanoke Queer Again bar crawl and the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project of examples of community history rooted in collecting, preserving, and sharing queer histories.

I loved this article’s emphasis on the idea of queer history being connected to physical spaces, geographic places, and as a lived history.  In many communities queer history has gone undocumented and at times is seen as non-existent or as irrelevant. Grassroots activism and community based history initiatives are one of the many ways to document queer pasts and realities – and I think that acknowledging the diversity of queer* experiences and histories is something that is hugely important when creating local history narratives.  Rosethal’s article is well worth the read if you’re at all interested in community based public history or queer history interpretation projects.

Reflection: 2016 Accomplishments

1469923511-mc-hp-1For the past few years I’ve reflected on my professional practice and accomplishments at the end of the year.  I’m going to continue that tradition with this blog post albeit in a slightly more list based format than the reflective posts I’ve done in the past.

In 2016 I did a lot of things including:

Talks and Presentations

  • In March I spoke as part of aFinding the Embedded Archivist” panel at the National Council for Public History annual meeting in Baltimore, MD.
  • This year I provided instructional programming to over 1,250 people.  The bulk of these instruction sessions related to residential schools, the history of the Shingwauk Indian Residential School, and reconciliation.  However a handful were also related to teaching about archives and archival literacy.
    • As part of this work I’ve taken a serious look at how I present residential school history and revamped my instruction practices to make sure I’m giving priority to Indigenous voices.

Committee Work

  • I was appointed as the co-chair of the membership committee for the National Council on Public History
  • In August I was appointed to the Steering Committee on Canada’s Archives (SCCA) – Response to the Report on the Truth and Reconciliation Task Force.   I am really honoured to be part of this committee and engaged in this important work relating to Indigenous communities and archives.

Outreach

  • I started seriously editing Wikipedia.  This was a bit of a rabbit hole for me – it initially started as a way to expand some of the archival outreach I do and evolved into a hobbie and something I really enjoy. I also organized a small edit-a-thon at Algoma University geared toward increasing content relating to Indigenous women on Wikipedia.
  • I spearheaded the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre’s contributions to the Archives of Ontario Family Ties: Ontario Turns 150 exhibition.
  • I curated and co-curated a number of smaller scale exhibitions on campus including one about local author Brian Vallée, and one focusing on Indigenous Women Activists and the Water Walk movement.
  • I setup and have been maintaining social media accounts for the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre. I also learned a bit more about different tools to help schedule and manage this outreach work.

Self-Care and Other Priorities

  • I kept with my commitment to make my physical health a priority.  I’ve been consistent in going to the gym on a regular basis and have been trying to eat better.
  • After much years of debate my partner and I made a decision to move.  We’ve bought and house and will be moving in 2017.  This move will mean I’m much closer to my work, it will cut down my commute significantly, and result in me getting to spend more time with my daughter.
  • I’ve been meeting regularly as part of two writing groups – an academic one (online) and a non-fiction group.  Both of these have been key in keeping me motivated on some ongoing projects.
  • In November I was honured to stand beside my sister as during her wedding.
  • I’m raising a funny, energy filled 2 year old who can identify Doctor Who on my t-shirts and who loves playing tea time.

At the end of 2016 I am very grateful for great colleagues, a community of public historians who energize and inspire, and challenging conversations.   Onward.